“Why I left the Old Country”

In 1942 the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which had only recently relocated from Vilna to New York City, sponsored a contest for the best autobiography by a Jewish immigrant on the theme, “Why I Left the Old Country and What I Have Accomplished in America.”

More than 200 autobiographical essays were submitted, written mostly in Yiddish and mostly by men, detailing many of the concerns of Jewish immigrants both in Europe and in America. Max Weinreich, YIVO’s director and guiding light, corresponded personally with many of the writers, persuading them of the historical importance of their works and requesting elaboration. YIVO gave out 25 prizes and preserved the essays in its archives.

Now, some 65 years later, a collection of these essays has been published as My Future Is In America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants, edited and translated by Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer (New York University Press).I found them a pleasure to read.

Bertha (Brukhe) Fox, who came from Skvira, Ukraine to New York in 1922, wrote about her life in an essay titled “The Movies Pale in Comparison.” The reason she left the Old Country? “Pogroms, pogroms without end,” she explained. “The pogromists always burst into the houses, took whatever there was, and left. Before we could recover, it started all over.”

Jews had “drowned in pools of blood” during the Revolution, were swollen with hunger in its aftermath, then had to contend with the rampaging antisemitic hordes. They sometimes gathered together with their neighbours, up to a hundred or more in a single house. Like many, Fox went out of her mind with fear.

“One time, when the hooligans came to break down the doors of our house, I moved quickly to open up, to avert their fury. One of them aimed his rifle at me and stuck it against my chest. Out of terror, I broke into hysterical laughter. Taken aback, he lowered the rifle. When the other one asked him, ‘So, what are you waiting for?’ he answered, ‘I can’t shoot a crazy person.’”

Some of the essays record heartbreaking childhoods of deprivation, poverty and hard times. Families struggled with failing businesses, moved from one impoverished village to the next, and were sometime preyed upon by larcenous scoundrels. Still, many were loathe to travel to America, considering it a “treife” land and a refuge of criminals, especially in the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s.

Minnie Goldstein, who traveled with her family from Warsaw to Rhode Island in 1894, related that her father, a poor businessman, was clandestinely teaching himself English but kept the reason a secret. When he finally told her mother that he wanted to go to America, she was aghast. “Who goes to America anyway? Those who run away from home because of some sort of crime, or those who are banished there by the government. What does someone like you have to do with America?”

When he left despite her wishes, she was ashamed and wouldn’t tell people where he had gone. Goldstein then described a grueling ocean crossing four years later as her mother brought her to New York to be reunited with their father and husband.

Rose Silverman, who wrote the title essay, received a harsh slap from her father the first time she told him “My future is in America.” But eventually he came to realize that she was right, even though parting with her broke his heart. Six weeks before her planned departure, he grew sick. “See to it, my child, that you are a respectable person in America,” he told her from his sickbed. The next day he died. Silverman traveled from Berdichev to New York in 1913.

Many of the essayists were involved in the socialist movement both in Russia and in America; several served in the Tsar’s army, but not could afford the bribes necessary to be assigned to a Jewish unit or avoid a difficult military posting. Others were steeped in gemorrah and an observant life, which they intended to continue in the new land. Not all were true to their religious ideals.

Aaron Domnitz, who came from Romanovo, Belarus to Baltimore in 1906, was amazed at the reception he received at Ellis Island, where a Yiddish-speaking security official asked him how he planned to make a living: he would be a Hebrew teacher, he replied.

“They laughed at me. ‘Go, go,’ they said, ‘you’ll be a great rebbe in America,’ and pushed me aside. I looked around. Here I am on the other side of the railing, among those who have been let in. But why did they laugh at me? It’s nothing. People are good-natured here and they were joking. I liked the reception.”

Several essayists discuss the situation of the greenhorn, who upon landing, may have already been in debt for a ship’s ticket sent to him from his “landsleit” relatives and friends, and paid for on the instalment plan. Typically, his friends would take him to the right men’s shops and outfit him in a new suit, hat and shoes. “Everything had to be American,” Domnitz wrote. “Clothes from home were defective, even if they were of good quality and well sewn. Going to the stores with the greenhorn on Canal Street was a joyful procedure, like a Jew back home picking out an esrog.”

Many studied English at night schools like the Educational Alliance, whose manager helped them apply for citizenship and persuaded some of them to lop off the extraneous “off’s” and “ski’s” and otherwise Americanize their surnames.

Although many soon realized that the streets of America were not paved with gold, there is at least one satisfying anecdote here of a greenhorn quickly making good. Chaim Kusnetz’s father, a newly-arrived iron worker, was given a chance to create a fancy and complicated gate that none of the more experienced workers could do. The result was worthy of exhibition in a gallery, and Kusnetz’s father was soon promoted to foreman.

No less satisfying was Rose Schoenfeld’s decisive action after waiting five years for her husband either to return from America or send for her and their five children. Leaving the children with a beloved cousin, she traveled across the ocean and showed up “as if I had fallen from the sky. Everyone in the house was so surprised to see me that they could not say a word. My husband started to faint from the surprise.” Five months later, the cousin brought over the five children and the family was reunited in America.

At times immensely gripping, these charming and realistic tales describe not only the lives of the writers and their families but, in a generic way, the lives of our own immigrant ancestors as well. ♦

© 2008